The Cool, Contemporary, Canadian Curator
Toronto is making big moves to amp up its cultural offerings. Next fall, the newly renovated, 50,000 square foot Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto opens in the city’s west end with some major ambitions. They’re calling it a “new type of museum,” one that “embodies diversity, cultural crossbreeding, new technologies, and the disappearance of silos in artistic disciplines.” Sounds good to us.
David Liss has been Director, Artistic Director, and Curator since December 2000, when the museum existed as the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. He told us which artists to watch, what he loves about the city, and his hopes for the art scene.
Who are three Canadian artists you’re particularly excited about right now, and why?
Really difficult for me to nail it down to three—partially in the interest of diplomacy, partially because I’m much more aware of artists in Toronto than anywhere else in Canada. So that’s not fair, but mostly because there’s way more than three that I’m excited about. But if I’m not allowed to dodge the question…
I’ll name Vancouver-based Geoffrey Farmer, who I (and many others) have been excited about for a long time. He’s certainly a prominent international figure at this point. I’m excited for him right now because he’ll be representing Canada at the upcoming Venice Biennale.
What keeps you devoted to Toronto, and to the city’s art community in particular?
Toronto is an amazing city on so many levels. Culturally, it’s one of the most diverse and interesting places anywhere in the world: high art, low art, music, theatre, dance, food, street life, the neighborhoods. I’m particularly devoted to The Junction, the neighborhood where I live. Best ‘hood in T.O.!
The art community in Toronto is huge—the sheer number of artists; the extensive network of public, commercial, and university art galleries; the artist-run centers and collective spaces. It would take at least a solid week to visit all the galleries and art spaces in Toronto. I wish, though, that the media, writers, and collectors were more excited and interested in the scene here. Then artists wouldn’t have to keep leaving to “make it.” Toronto is a huge and infinitely interesting scene and very underrated as a center for contemporary art, both at home and elsewhere.
How do you hope the new permanent home for MOCA will impact Toronto?
I took the job in the first place because I was inspired to build a contemporary art museum in Canada’s largest city. I was living in Montreal at the time and I often wondered why Toronto, with its amazing art scene and history, going all the way back to the early 20th century, didn’t have a contemporary art museum or even a biennale like most cities were investing in during the mid/late 1990s.
Building an institution from scratch has been a challenge for sure. We’ve been functioning modestly but mightily over the last 10 or 15 years, especially on Queen St. West., building a profile and a history, and contributing tons of programming and activity. I think MOCA is well-poised to make really significant contributions to the ecology of the city’s cultural scene.
It’s going to add another great cultural dimension to the city, another reason to visit. It will open up more opportunities for artists and other cultural professionals. It’s going to be an edgy, sting-y, beehive of awesome activity. Since day one, we’ve brought a distinctive, multi-faceted dynamic and a fearless spirit to our programming. I’d like to continue to do the same—except now, with a larger facility, we can crank it up to 11.
What are you looking forward to in the city this fall?
Toronto has so much to offer! In a city as culturally rich as Toronto, this is an unreasonable question. Of course there’s the Toronto International Film Festival with incredible depth in programming beyond all of the Hollywood stuff.
Art Toronto in October is always a good place to see new work, connect with the galleries, speakers, curators, and artists that come from all over the country. People from around the world visit.
Due to the over-accelerated property market in Toronto, there’s been a massive shift in the scene just recently towards the west end of the city, up around The Junction where I live. With so many of the galleries, bars, restaurants, and artists residing in close proximity, I’m looking forward to the new season—the openings, parties, events, exhibitions, and general animation of the neighborhoods and communities that have sprung up. They’re all within walking or riding distance of my place. That said, I’m not oblivious to some of the downside of gentrification. It’s a mixed blessing…
The Art Gallery of Ontario has a big show coming up called “The Toronto Project,” focusing on the art scene between the 1960s and 1980s (a fascinating yet sadly neglected era). This exhibition should shine some inspiring light and maybe provide some insights into the building blocks and foundations of today’s art and the people and places that have shaped the current scene.
In Ottawa, about four hours up the road, the National Gallery of Canada is hosting the Sobey Art Award in November, Canada’s largest art prize ($50,000 CAD) for artists under 40. The Sobey nominee lists are always worth referencing. If you want to know other Canadian artists that I’m excited about, check this year’s long-list. 25 excellent artists.